When the 103d Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) (ESC) assumed operational sustainment responsibility in Iraq from the 13th ESC during the summer of 2010, fuel management for the theater of operations presented a daunting mission.
At the time of the ESCs' transfer of authority, the scorching summer months were already well underway and the initial responsible drawdown of forces had begun. Fuel requirements had been growing, and they continued to grow until early October. During the peak of the drawdown, the ESC sustained more than 125,000 personnel and supporting equipment with three separate fuels. JP8, the Army's single fuel on the battlefield, constituted most of class IIIB (bulk petroleum, oils, and lubricants) in the Iraq joint operations area. During the summer and into the fall, the average weekly consumption was approximately 1 million gallons.
Timely and accurate forecasting, ordering, and distribution monitoring of this fuel is the job of the ESC fuel section. At the transfer of authority, Microsoft Excel served as the primary management information system. Because of the breadth and depth of data collected, an intricate system of spreadsheets and methodologies had been adopted and had evolved from rotation to rotation. This system, although effective, was fragile and labor intensive. Each 13-person ESC fuel section spent 70 percent of its personnel hours simply maintaining the system and conducting quality checks. Nearly all reporting and analysis required manual data entry, calculation, and quality checks.
The strategic inflection point came in the first days of the relief in place. The 103d ESC fuel section deployed with six personnel, of whom only two were qualified in their military occupational specialties. This significant decrease in staff, coupled with an outmoded system (Microsoft Excel), demanded immediate transformation of the current information management methodologies. The fact that the fuel data management function was unsustainable forced innovation. Successfully overhauling a real-world operational system while simultaneously continuing combat operations required an innovative approach and a strong change agent.
Using Expertise in the Ranks
Major Thomas G. Lewis, the class IIIB officer-in-charge, immediately looked to his noncommissioned officers for their unique skill sets. "As an Army Reservist myself, I am keenly aware of the additional competencies and talents Reserve Soldiers often bring to the fight," observed Major Lewis. One such Soldier was Staff Sergeant Jacob A. Clos, whose civilian experience included inventory process control and information management in manufacturing.
As a supply chain professional for Emerson Process Management–Fisher Division in Marshalltown, Iowa, Staff Sergeant Clos had worked with Microsoft Access and Excel for the past 6 years analyzing data and process improvements. "Over my career," he noted, "I have learned the importance of accurate data through the entire supply chain cycle, and data accuracy was my main focus of the fuel management project. The skill sets I advanced during this project [developing a new fuel data management system] will be carried over to my civilian career, so it was a win-win situation."
After an initial assessment and research into available resources and preliminary system architecture, Staff Sergeant Clos began the arduous task of building, testing, and validating a completely new fuel management system for the Iraq theater.
The objectives of the proposed fuel management system included—
- Reducing spreadsheet links and reliance on Microsoft Excel.
- Significantly decreasing personnel hours devoted to system maintenance and quality checks on data.
- Improving forecast analysis times.
- Creating a highly responsive and flexible ordering process.
- Establishing an intuitive and user-friendly interface.
Another Program Offers a Solution
The solution was using Microsoft Access, a rela-tional database already in the Army's software inventory. This program comes as standard software with the Microsoft Office Suite on most Army computers. The transition from Excel to Access accomplished all proposed objectives established during the initial assessment phase.
Access garners its power from queries rather than links. The links created in Excel are often broken unless the operator pays careful attention to fixing them. The more links there are in a system, the higher the probability of errors and the subsequent need for expending personnel hours to troubleshoot the problem. The prime cause of problems with Excel is a lack of training or experience on its advanced functions. Most personnel understand basic software capabilities. However, at the ESC level, advanced training and knowledge is required to properly manage the volume of data being processed.
By switching to Access queries, the speed of data retrieval increased with few, if any, of the linkage issues so often produced by operator error in Excel. Significant improvements in system efficiencies resulted in an 80-percent reduction in personnel hours required for data entry, quality checks, and subsequent corrections. In addition, the custom-built queries shortened the time horizon from receipt of data to actionable changes by two-thirds. What required 2½ months could now be done in approximately 30 days.
Prebuilt custom queries in Access make it possible to use an intuitive graphical user interface instead of Excel's spreadsheet architecture. This lends itself to smoother transitions with follow-on units and less-computer-savvy users, as the interface is familiar and significantly less arduous to navigate. Access permits a point-and-click interface familiar to all users of Microsoft Windows. Soldiers who may not be familiar with information management, fuel operations, or data analysis can quickly learn this system, creating a longer-term, more robust tool.
With the use of query architecture, the storage capacity of Access is significantly larger than that of Excel, making it a better long-term approach to fuel management not just in Iraq but in any theater of operations that implements it. The sheer volume of daily data received at the ESC level requires the ability to archive data for future retrieval during trend analysis and seasonal forecasting. Access has the added advantage of allowing the user to extract and export data into Excel.
Access is also being used to help streamline the implementation of the Battle Command Sustainment Support System (BCS3) in Iraq through its large storage capacity and query functions. Reporting errors can be quickly identified and remedied by using BCS3. The previous fuel system would have required 2 to 3 Soldiers to spend a full 2 weeks remapping the approximate 19,000 Excel links. With Access, one Soldier can integrate BCS3 fuel reporting directly into the new fuel management database in just under 2 hours.
After completing the relief in place, Brigadier General Mark W. Corson, the commanding general of the 103d ESC, delivered his charge to the unit: "Add value and do no harm. Add value by making improvements where necessary and where available. Do not break existing systems or processes while implementing change."
This attitude guided the 103d ESC fuel section. The intent in developing and implementing a completely new fuel management system for Iraq is rooted in that charge. Through unique civilian experiences and skill sets, innovative approaches streamlined fuel management processes and will favorably impact the next ESC coming to Iraq.